The party ended the way these things tend to: with the police rocking up and telling everyone to go home.
Of course, the police were at the anti-G7 march in Giardini Naxos, Sicily, before the party had even begun, and it had technically ended by the time everything came to a head.
But there’s no denying that before the Communists linked arms and marched on the police line, and the first tear-gas canister was thrown, a party was what it had been: a roaming street party, punctuated by music and dancing when not by impassioned speeches against war, inequality, racism, misogyny, and all the other things that, taken together, the G7 in general, and Donald Trump in particular, seemed to the protesters to so represent.
Professor Gianni Piazza from the University of Catania studies such movements for a living. I ran into him about ten minutes before the shit was flung fan-ward.
“So far, so good,” I said, temping fate.
“We aren’t at the end yet,” Professor Piazza said. “If anything’s going to happen, it’ll happen at the end.”
Which brings us back to the beginning. Fifteen minutes before the march began, it still seemed uncertain whether it would do so at all. Buses had been getting stopped all morning, both from other parts of Sicily and from the Italian mainland, the protesters aboard subjected to lengthy searches, identification checks, and turn-backs. What had meant to start at three was suddenly pushed back to four.
I ran into Vanya, a 19-year-old German activist I had met in Palermo a few days earlier, who told me, when she finally arrived, that her own bus had been stopped twice, with the most militant-looking militants on board removed from it at once. There was a reason the gathering beneath the causeway leading into town seemed suspiciously small: the suspiciously violent had been prohibited from attending.
When I met him in Catania last week, Professor Piazza had warned me this may happen. After all, it happened in March, when thousands of protesters attempted to gather in Rome for the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which formally established the European Economic Community in 1957. Since March, it has become the go-to method: deny someone’s civil rights before they get a chance to protest your denial of them.
Indeed, when I arrived at the meeting place, halfway between Chianchitta and Giardni where the northbound highway descends into the usually quiet resort town, it was difficult to tell whether activists outnumbered media or vice versa. Peter Oliver, the Europe correspondent for Russia Today, told me the numbers seemed far lower to him than they had in Munich in 2015. An RT correspondent would say that, I thought, though that didn’t make him wrong. By hosting this year’s G7 in Taormina, up the road from the beach and up the hill from the road, the organisers seemed finally to have nailed the brief. If you build it, they will come, so best build it somewhere relatively inaccessible.
The event was marked from the outset by a number of competing messages and visions. Maoists, trade unionists, feminists, anti-fascists, and a couple of people dressed as pirates competed for interviews. Interestingly, for a decidedly left-wing protest, there were some anti-Maduro Venezuelans in attendance, too. The competing messages sometimes drowned one another out, but there was one point on which everyone present seemed to agree: US President Donald Trump.
Lorrie, 64, was live-streaming the event on Facebook for her friends back home in America. Originally from Boston, Lorrie has lived in Sicily for fifteen years. “I thought my protesting days were over,” she said proudly.
She showed off her pink pussy hat – “I thought there would be more people wearing them!” – and smiled. “I didn’t get to attend any of the Women’s Marches in the States,” she said.
Antonio, 24, had come up from Catania for the march. He was handing out home-made “Wanted” posters with Trump’s all-too-familiar visage front and centre.
“Donald Trump represents the worst of capitalism,” Antonio said. “He’s a rich man who disrespects women, who refuses to listen to climate change scientists, and whose views are perilous to our future.”
Antonio was in town with the Unione degli Studenti, an avowedly anti-fascist students’ union. He said he was particularly opposed to the European position on migration, which, although it hardly seems possible, became ever more hard-line last week. No rescue boats were allowed to land in Sicily – currently Ground Zero when it comes to African migration into Europe – in the lead-up to the summit. (More than 46,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since this beginning of this year, and at least 30, including children, died last week, arguably as a result of the moratorium on debarcations. By contrast, approximately 30,500 people arrived in Australia by boat between August 2012 and January 2014.)
“The problem isn’t people moving across borders,” Antonio said. “It’s the policies that have caused them to move across borders in the first place. We ruined Africa. We ruined the Middle East by invading it in the name of a few people’s economic interests.”
“We need to fix the policies. We need more solidarity with the people in these countries.”
Eventually, the march began and the various flags were unfurled: “#nostato #noclericalismo #nocapitalismo #nomiritalismo.” “We Have a Dream: Smash Capitalism!.” “Taormina services tourists not the G7.” (Taormina’s mayor, Eligio Giardina, has described himself as the “most hated man” in town as a result of his willingness to host the summit.) There were the usual, more questionable standards: Mao’s benevolent, murderous face, huge and billowing, and at least one Hezbollah flag. The Sicilian triskelion was everywhere apparent.
As the parade turned down down onto the narrow streets near the water, it became difficult to make out the protesters for the observers. People lined the lido, tourists and locals alike, taking photos, applauding the speeches they agreed with, and occasionally even hanging their own banners – “Climate Change Exists!” – over the balconies of their hotels and homes. And always there were the police: retreating slightly up the esplanade, keeping a respectful distance, giving the parade its head. For a long time it seemed as though nothing was going to happen. It was perhaps even a little bit boring.
But there were a thousand things to notice. The man playing jazz flute as helicopters hovered menacingly overhead. The kids in black giving said helicopters the finger and then doing it again in case their friends missed it the first time. A number of photographers ran down to the beach to photograph two girls in bikinis, who were watching the procession. The photographers were apparently unaware that many in the procession were there to protest precisely that sort of behaviour.
Vincenzo was in town from Messina with Italy’s national transport workers’ union. He lamented the presence of the police. “Between Taormina and Giardini, there are 10,000 police here,” he said. “That tells you everything you need to know about how the Italian government views its people.”
Vincenzo, 52, said he was primarily protesting on behalf of Sicily’s youth. “There are too many young people who have to leave Sicily to find work,” he said. (Sicily’s youth unemployment rate sits at a disturbingly high 57.2 per cent.) “Sicily cannot be a place without work. It cannot be a place where the only work available is with the US military.”
Vincenzo was referring to the presence of America’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) near Sigonella, which activists oppose on health, environmental and moral grounds. (Australia hosts a MUOS ground station at the Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station at Kojarena near Geraldton.) “We must change this,” he said.
The day was getting on and everyone’s feet and voices were growing tired. In the days prior to the march, it hadn’t been uncommon to come across someone boarding up their seafront shop or property, terrified that so-called “black bloc” protesters might come to Giardini and attempt to make a Genoa out of it. (In 2001, Genoa’s G8 meeting was marred by violent clashes that left two dead and hundreds more injured.) But there was one place open near the Parrocchia di Santa Maria Immacolata and it was doing a remarkable trade in beer, coffee and – as was soon to be more relevant than one might have hoped – bottled water.
Within moments of meeting Professor Piazza, I found myself yanking my phone charger out of the nearest outdoor power outlet and running up the street. The pilot truck had stopped in its tracks, but some of the protesters had continued on.
They marched without masks. They marched without bandanas. Arms linked and faces exposed, a group of young men in red shirts – like Garibaldi and his Thousand – walked in to meet the police line head-on. (That they did so without hiding their faces was not unimportant: the police were filming them from every vantage point.) There was the usual push-and-pull of the moment, always more dramatic-looking than it seems to those in the fray, where one is mostly concerned with protecting one’s sunglasses or finding a place to tie one’s shoe. Then the tear-gas canisters came out.
A few stayed on the sidelines to get their pictures, but most eventually fled to the beach. They splashed bottled water into their eyes: suddenly the open store made sense. They returned for the second wave, like gluttons for punishment.
But no second wave came. The boys in red came up again and sang a song of angry defiance, but declined to march on the police a second time. There were men we had marched with all day who now wore helmets and wielded batons, back where they belonged on the side of the law. And nothing happened.
Well, nearly nothing: a young woman, who had spent the march dancing with a rainbow peace flag, went up and waved it defiantly in their faces, the media horde going mad at the sight of it. It’s to be hoped that a picture of her exists that doesn’t have other photographers in it: this was the afternoon’s defining moment, a recreation of Liberty Leading the People for our times. Victoria, 22, is probably famous by now. I found her afterwards and asked why she did it.
“I haven’t been in the Red Zone,” she said, referencing Taormina’s town centre, where the summit took place under heavy security. “But I have seen what these people have done to my town.”
“I wanted to show them—to demonstrate—that they don’t have all the power.”
Of course, most of the leaders had already left Taormina by the time that any of this happened. This is the way such meetings work: the leaders speak on behalf of their populations and are long gone by the time their populations are given a say themselves.
Professor Piazza was pleased that the afternoon’s violence didn’t go any further. His comments summed up the strange symbiosis that sometimes seems to exist between protesters and police.
“It was a good day,” he said. “The police showed restraint and the protesters showed they were willing to resist.”
Victoria was by now on the back of the pilot truck, plugging in her iPhone and letting loose ‘Imagine’—what else?—for the crowd to croon along with.
“The residents of Giardini supported the demonstration,” Professor Piazza said. “I think that was because there was no evidence that ‘black block’ protesters were going to cause trouble. I think the organisers should be very happy.”
But what about those final moments? The march on the police line? The tear gas canisters?
Professor Piazza smiled and shrugged.
“It was a little bit of theatre,” he said.